Our two-wheeled adventure seeker scoffed at the sign that read “4X4 Recommended” at the entrance to the Sykes Ridge Road near the Montana/Wyoming border.
“If I were you, I wouldn’t go down there, not on that big motorcycle,” said the lady ATV driver at Pen’s Cabin.
I was on a Kawasaki KLX 250S. I thought, “If I can’t pick my way through what this lady had just come up – 16 miles of what showed on the map as a 4X4 track – maybe I should think about changing my two wheels for four.”
One of my acquaintances had recently said I was too old to go off-road anymore. While he was 10 years younger, I still felt at my Senior Discount age I could manage what the ATV driver had done, which was navigate the Sykes Ridge Road.
The ATV driver and I were parked at Pen’s Cabin, about a mile from the start of the Sykes Ridge Road. This was a rugged area in the Pryor Mountain Range near the Montana and Wyoming border. The cabin was built in 1925 by Perrin L. Cummins (nicknamed “Pen”) who lived in nearby Shriver, Montana. Pen had applied for a homestead patent for the land in which he built the cabin but did not have the $8.50 needed to complete the application process. He died in 1927 while working with horses near his home in Shriver and the cabin had remained in the public domain.
I debated with myself about taking the ATV pilot’s advice and camping for the night at Pen’s Cabin. I had my camping gear with me: tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, food and some water. The alpine meadows and woods around the cabin were seemingly home for a major part of the herd of wild horses that inhabited the area designated as the Pryor Mountain National Wild Horse Range. The horses would be my camping neighbors for the night.
Earlier in the day I had two encounters with the wild mustangs. One knocked over my motorcycle while trying to get to food stored in my tank bag. Another backed into me while moving away from a jeep that was driving past both of us. I tried “horse whispering” – believed by some people as a way to communicate with horses. I whispered some expletives to both horses but received no acknowledgement. Several of the wild horses were friendly; maybe more friendly than I wanted them to be with me sleeping in a small tent on the ground they were roaming over.
With nearly 12 hours of daylight left, I chose to prove my Senior Discount age naysayer acquaintance and the ATV driver wrong. Two hours later and 16 miles further, I realized that averaging 8 mph was a triumph in the sense I proved they had been wrong about the capabilities of me and my big KLX250S.
Part of the basis for my going against the advice or observations of others was that fact that I was aging. I had longingly looked at the Sykes Ridge Road on paper maps for over 40 years. The Wyoming and Montana maps were tacked onto walls in my house and garage. Sykes Ridge Road was less than 25 miles from my home in Montana, but to reach it meant either a 150-mile trip around the base of the Pryor Mountains or a 200-mile route around the neighboring Big Horn Mountains making for a long day either way. I had never had the chance to carve out the long day or have access to the right motorcycle to make the attempt.
My window of opportunity to drive either up or down the Sykes Ridge Road was also small, being in the months of July or August. Even in those months snow could be encountered at the top several thousand feet higher than at the bottom, and the road could become impassable.
There was also some risk involved. The first was that I was alone and the road was known to be treacherous if wet. A small get-off resulting in damage to either myself of the KLX250S meant possibly a long crawl or walk to reach civilized pavement or traffic. The other risk was from mechanical breakdown, but this I placed low on my risk management scale. The KLX250S had taken me to and from some tough places, like the end of a rough road deep in the Alaska bush 60 miles from the town of Nome. It had never let me down and I felt confident it would again do its job.
With a slight degree of trepidation, I started down the Sykes Ridge Road, dropping off the alpine fields at the top and into pine tree forests. As the steepness of the decent increased it seemed loose rocks were testing me whenever I looked into the woods for animals.
The track would descend for a quarter of a mile and then go back up the next hill to an equal level, riding along ridges for which the road was named. First or second gears were where I stayed.
The scenery was spectacular with the green forest against the blue sky and an occasional white cloud or gray outcropping of rocks. While savoring some of this scenery I made the error of not focusing on the track in front of me.
The temptation to look for bear, deer and horses was soon discarded after hitting one or two rocks the size of a football.
The Kawasaki tried to climb over a large rock shaped and sized like a watermelon. The rock bounced the front wheel high into the air while I was in first gear powering up a steep section. Both of my feet slipped off the foot pegs and I slid back on the motorcycle seat, twisting the throttle open as I did. The front wheel went higher in the air, nearly vertical. I may have shrieked at that point, but since there were no people around to attest to it, and the wild horses were not talking, I can deny my unmanly vociferousness.
With the heavy load on the back of the motorcycle and my added weight over the back wheel I was out of control, the throttle WFO and headed off the gravel track and into the woods. I did what I thought was the smartest motorcycle management control move I could make: I released my hands from the handlebar and rolled sideways off the seat, possibly still shrieking.
The Kawasaki KLX250S did a pilotless wheelie for several feet, a 180 degree spin, and then let the front wheel drop to the ground. While still upright it started to roll downhill towards me lying spread eagle in the track. I may have shrieked some more.
Of the KLX250S I can say it doesn’t travel well downhill unmanned, thankfully. It flopped on its side and the engine stalled.
I stood up, felt my body for broken parts, found none, and then scrambled toward my downed motorcycle. First I shut off the ignition, and then the gas. I stepped back several feet and surveyed the downed motorcycle and thought, “How am I going to get it upright?”
While I weighed my Senior Discount age against the physics of gravity and the weight of the motorcycle, I dug into my riding jacket pocket for my camera, and then digitally recorded the horizontal green beast that tried to run me over.
The solution to my problem was simple enough, but not very pretty. First I removed my helmet and hot jacket and placed them on the shoulder of the track. Then I unstrapped and removed the luggage and set it on the ground. Next I grabbed the rear wheel and dragged it in a half circle so it was pointed downhill and the front wheel uphill.
Had anyone happened to come up to this sight, it would have looked as though my motorcycle had been hit by a grenade. There was riding gear, luggage and the motorcycle spread everywhere with a hot, dirty and sweating rider looking beat-up. Fortunately I was alone on the ridge, except for a few horses I saw watching me from deep in the woods.
I went to the left side of the downed motorcycle and with great effort wedged myself partially under it and grunted it upright. Holding the brake firmly “on” was a test while I toed the side stand down and then rested while thinking, “Man-oh-man, I’m sure glad I’m not out here having this adventure on my big 500-pound adventure motorcycle.”
Another analysis of my situation was to determine if I was manly enough to lift my right leg over the seat and on to the ground or footpeg on the right side and then drive upward. It was a real test of agility and I concluded I might fail. With no one watching I decided to start the motorcycle, shift it into first gear and, while feathering the clutch, walk next to it on the left side to a flatter spot up higher.
After making several trips to mule the luggage and riding gear up to the motorcycle I was huffing and puffing like someone in my Senior Discount age category should.
Once out of the pine trees the track became steeper with loose rocks and ugly steps requiring I pick my line carefully.
The rest of the trip off the Pryor Mountains was shriekless. There were several tough spots where 4X4’s had dug deep ruts that would have been impassable when the ground was wet. However, on this day they were dry and I wobbled through them, dabbing every once in a while but staying upright. The other obstacles were big rocks – some as large as a motorcycle helmet. These I managed to miss by reminding myself of the earlier get-off.
When I reached the end of the road and flat ground I stopped to photograph several signs. Resting and slowing my heart pace, checking the motorcycle for damage and re-securing my luggage took me several minutes. While doing so a jeep came down the track I had just completed.
The jeep driver, his passenger/ wife and I spent several minutes talking while he checked over his vehicle, added air to tires and changed from four wheel drive to rear wheel drive. He said that was the last time he was going to drive the Sykes Ridge Road, calling the adventure “Darn tough!”
I laughed and said I agreed that it was a test and then told him how I had been looking at it on maps for over 40 years.
“We heard you back up there in the woods,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“We were not that far behind you. We would have caught up but stopped to take pictures, and whisper to some horses.”
“What did the horses whisper back?”
Sixteen miles from where I started and two hours later I was at the end of Sykes Ridge Road tired, thirsty and lumped up.
He laughed and said, “They were just starting to listen to me when we heard someone down below us shrieking. It had to be you because we’ve seen no one else.”
I bristled a little, and replied, “That was the motorcycle engine shrieking at high rpms as I hammered a tough hill.”
To this he laughed, and commented with a wry sense of humor, “If that was your motorcycle shrieking, then them wild horses back there were whispering back to me.”
To this we both laughed. We then traded some more small talk about our work and where we lived. He and his wife finally drove away toward Lovell, Wyoming.
I readied myself and the motorcycle to follow, then stopped. It was 3 p.m. in the afternoon and I had another five to six hours of daylight. To take the pavement through Lovell and then home was going to be an easy and boring five hours. Driving back over the top of the Pryor Mountains via the Sykes Ridge Road would knock off 40-50 miles.
I needed no coin to flip for choosing which direction to go. It was back up the 16 miles of Sykes Ridge Road. I was thinking maybe along the way I could have another go at whispering to those horses.
What would I whisper to the wild horses if I found them? I would whisper, “Don’t tell anybody you heard me shrieking.”